Craziness Is the Cure: Why the Literary Matters - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Craziness Is the Cure: Why the Literary Matters

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When I first read Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” I hated it. Similar to most undergraduate students the self-reflections of some old 19th-Century bearded guy that spent his whole life writing and then revising his Leaves of Grass had little interest to me.

However, as I matured academically, I started to see the real story of the man. Whitman took care of his mentally ill brother, and he saw the human body, male and female, as a beautiful thing. He celebrated the body. He also worked as a “nurse” during the Civil War and witnessed unimaginable horrors. In many ways, the Civil War was the destroyer of hundreds of thousands, so many human bodies, often piled up in stacks. As many know, at Gettysburg alone, 50,000 soldiers perished. From a modern-day perspective, the loss of life was horrendous. In terms of the population then, such was unimaginable.

What I slowly learned was that “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” was part of a larger masterpiece pushing us to see the life-death cycle told through an opera by a bard, whose goal was to make a mortal moment in time, immortal. Though we cannot defy death, our words can. To be a poet, to be a writer, is to be like God. Not even our richest men—and they are all men, the richest—can do that.

My love of writing turned a high-school dropout into a college professor of English. I learned that art, the artistic, is an acquired taste. In having to read a 1000-page Dickens’ novel, I came to accept that I would have little idea what was going on until 50-100 pages in. Dickens is not heavy reading. Often called Mr. Sentimentality, Dickens’ strength was in giving us so many colorful characters while challenging Victorian society to see the horrors of the Industrial Revolution through characters like Master Bates that both saved and compromised little boys. Did not Victorian England throw out little boys and little match girls in the streets to die? Most know him through his story A Christmas Carol.

Then there were the Canterbury Tales and the Rape of the Locke, texts written in or “near” Middle English where there was no standardized spelling. Learning to read them was often laborious and exceedingly difficult. In both, there was an often-hidden message: sex mattered, even when on a religious pilgrimage. One of my proudest moments was when I taught my undergraduate class how to read in Middle English. It’s a beautiful language that sounds slightly infected with Italian.

There were the “good-trouble” writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston that made us see Blackness instead of whiteness, and the haunting statements that Hughes’ dad, though Black, hated Blacks, and Hurston’s female character that must put up with her husband’s “hooves feet” when in bed.

There are so many others, past and present, but in our need to be concise and to “sum it up” such is creating a generation with little curiosity in uncovering their own motivations and feelings. Instead, more and more demand that others be silenced or censured. If one reads poorly, then one cannot process what is really written. We all want a dictator. Sylvia Plath notes that we all love the fascist; we just want him to like us. He won’t. Here, our hopes lead to our own tragedies.

The key to reading texts like Lolita, Beloved, Fences, Plath’s poem “Daddy” and even The End of Alice is that literature provides a safe space for us to engage difficult issues, to help us learn how to analyze, step out of our skins, and see the world from different perspectives. Context matters. I often joked with my students that when I finish class, I will go and speak to my mistress. For them, they thought I had a lover. In Shakespeare’s time, “mistress” could mean a wealthy young girl or a woman in control. As time went on, she could also be a female slave owner. I was speaking with my daughter because, often, she acts like she is the one in control!

In an age of raging fake news, where we have elevated emotion to that of science, we could all use a little context, discipline, and caution. If one word can change so much in 600 years, a language so much so that it becomes “foreign” to us, then what makes us think our current interpretation of any event is correct unless we study it carefully?

In order to study carefully, we need time and space to process the complexity, difficulty, and ineffectiveness of language and communication itself. As a literary writer, I write trauma, and I write trauma and guide the reader’s processing of it much like a kid that is playing with slime. Slime, like “good trouble,” is not meant to be comfortable.

Literature is like a difficult lover that you love just a little too much. Poe’s “The Raven” is not your friend, nor is it written to sell well. Poems and literary pieces seldom follow the all-to-familiar heroic myth or the male sexual climax, rising and falling action, arc building. All is fine enough for any human brain because such mimics what our brains like, repetition. The same feels safe, so to be famous, a best seller, just give us more of the same, but the genius is in telling the same thing differently. This is not about literary writing. It’s about good marketing. Yet, too much repetition, however, can boarder on insanity. The only difference in readers is that they all expect the same happy ending, not a different one.

As I leave teaching literature and English, my heart aches because if I could make a living writing, I would. I, though, am a literary artist, not a commercial one. My work follows a woman’s orgasm, not a man’s climax. I do not mean this as a putdown to the great writers like Steven King and so many others, but there is a difference between popular writing and literary writing. One takes incredible discipline and humility, a thumb on the public, like a good journalist; the other, just the right amount of insanity so that one can finish what they started. As Sherman Alexie stated in an interview with Bill Moyer: the greatest art has come from the most manic periods in a writer’s life. Plath may have been mentally ill, but her poem “Daddy” is an absolute masterpiece.

It’s good because we are “crazy.” We press and eliminate boundaries, then set new ones. That craziness can often be too close to comfort for the average and avid reader alike.

“By the way, I find the cover of your book disturbing.” I got that comment from a person in the social sciences for decades. My answer, “And …?”

We can start to consider the many meanings of Eve with a snake. She can ask why she thinks such a cover was chosen. This is the beginning of analyzing a piece of art, whether a picture, painting, or novel. Personal prejudices and emotional triggering run contrary to good critical thinking.

She had no interest in reading it.

Next time you enroll in school or are speaking for your kids, please demand that schools—whether K-12, college or university—teach literary pieces. Be sure they know what that means. Life is not concise or politically correct. Life is not Cliff Notes or Wikipedia, nor is it CNN, Fox News, or our favorite radio personality. Life is messy and complicated. There is no better place to learn how to deal with life than within the pages of a literary masterpiece. You may just hate it now but love it later.

Here is the reason why Whitman revised the same work all his life:

“The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life”
― Muhammad Ali.

About the author

Earl Yarington

Earl Yarington is a social worker (LMSW) and an associate professor in literature, writing, and cultural studies (PhD) at Prince Georges Community College and adjunct professor at Indiana University East. He is the author of many publications under his name and under pen name Justin Forest. Earl's focus areas are the representations of girlhood in media,, eroticism, and child pornography law, paraphilia, sex offending and criminal justice. He is especially interested in the treatment of those with sexual challenges such as minor-attraction (pedophilia, hebepedophilia) to help prevent child sexual abuse while providing humane support for individuals seeking help. His book Lolita in the Lion's Den challenges readers to address what is so often hidden and misunderstood about minor-attraction, sex offending, and the child emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse. Earl provides sex therapy under supervision for the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. Earl writes about sexual issues, education, and occasionally politics. His writing is based on his expertise and knowledge, and such does not represent the opinions or positions of agencies, universities, and colleges that employ him, nor that of the Baltimore Post-Examiner. Contact the author.

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